On a hill overlooking Granada in the south of Spain, there is a fragment of a half-remembered dream, a vision of the possible – a place that evokes a glimpse of heaven on earth. The Generalife was the summer palace and country estate of the Nasrid rulers of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus (now Andalusia) in the 13th and 14th centuries.[i] The royal family stayed here to avoid the summer heat in the Alhambra, the primary palace down in the city. The delicate arches, detailed botanical and abstract carvings, and extensive irrigated gardens with their acequias and fountains and plantings are almost otherworldly, but they are solidly real.
The Generalife recalls a time that modern history has all but forgotten – for seven centuries Al-Andalus was the predominant cultural, intellectual, and scientific center of Europe. This land, while ruled by Muslims, was a society in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews from Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa lived together in peace and prosperity. The long, complex history of these centuries of cultural and religious peace, and their deep influence on modern life (for instance, on the aesthetics of Spanish-speaking cultures of the Americas), has much to teach us – not just about art and architecture, but about what heaven – the Kingdom of God – here might feel like when it comes to earth.
I wonder what pops into your imagination when you dream about heaven, when
we pray the words that Jesus taught his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
What does that even look like? How do those images – heaven and earth – come together for you in this world of beauty and horror and love and betrayal? Do you imagine a jeweled city with streets of gold? A fluffy cloudscape inhabited by pre-Raphaelite winged beings in diaphanous white robes? How does that fit together here on the planet surface – in many places arid and dusty, in others drowning in chaotic waters, and in many places littered with ash and broken glass – a world beset with fire and flood and war?
And before we even get to the landscape, I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wonder if the world is so broken, the country is so broken, the Church is so broken, our lives are so broken, that it’s naïve to think it could really ever be different. Our fellow human beings can love and inspire us, and they can disappoint and hurt us. Our life together can be, well, a mess of bitterness and broken relationships. The struggle is real. And yet. . .
. . . and yet. . . we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Jesus himself taught us to pray, your Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven. Your will be done, on earth as in heaven. That is the essence of hope. Hope on earth. Hope now.
As Christians, we put our whole trust in someone who bore the brunt of the worst that we can dish out, as individuals or as a “system”, and who rose victorious from that greatest of all betrayals, betrayal unto death. And he walked again, upon the earth. In him, heaven has begun to come to earth. In him, there is hope for this world, for our country, for our church, and for us.
The Revelation to John gives us an epic vision: first of cosmic discord, strife, and evil, and then, in the poetry of luminescent, numinous symbolism, of that peace that is beyond our understanding and yet not beyond our grasp. John gives us an image of heaven on earth:
"And in the spirit (the angel) carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God . . .I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. . . Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."[ii]
In the Generalife, the main garden is laid out just like that, with an acequia – a channel of water – down the middle – a feature that you often see in desert places marked by the Arabic influence in Spain (for instance, Mexico and South Texas). The Generalife is a garden that is also part of a city. The water of life creates a heavenly oasis in an arid, dusty land. There grew plants whose leaves were for healing. It’s a memory of a fragment of the magnificent dream of God, from another branch of our Abrahamic faith.
John’s poem points to the realization of God’s dream. The new Jerusalem – heaven – comes down out of heaven to earth. We don’t get to heaven by flying into the atmosphere and abandoning the earth. God comes to join with us here in remaking this world; heaven comes to us.
God dwells with us, in a city that is a garden. We first met God in a garden, east of Eden – remember the old, old story? We bit into fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, trying to be like God. Turns out we are not all that good at being gods, as God knew we would not be, and so we were banished from that place that sheltered the Tree of Life. We wandered into a wasteland to cultivate thorns, with serpents at our heels. We built cities. We built Jerusalem, the city of the temple.
We met again in another garden, at Gethsemane, where the Prince of Peace departed for the wasteland of Golgotha outside of the old city of Jerusalem, where the tree of life became the tree of death – a tree on which we hanged God himself.
And now, in John’s vision, when all things are fulfilled, we are back in a garden, on the earth. This garden is also a city – co-created by God and humans. It needs no temple. In it is the throne of Jesus, the Lamb, and from that throne flows the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, down the middle of the street, like a cosmic version of the Generalife, and on either side is the Tree of Life – that tree from which we were barred in Eden, but which we regained on the other side of the cross of Christ.
The Tree of Life bears twelve fruits, one for each month. John doesn’t elaborate, but there are all kinds of fruit in Scripture to color that in. For instance, Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, self control.[iii] This fruit is how things are – how we are – when we are centered in Christ instead of in our own agendas.
And there is more to the Tree of Life. Its leaves, John tell us, are for the healing of the nations. There is healing all over this garden, all over this city: Healing that comes from God.
God knows, we need healing. When we are way, way off center, and everything seems like strife and discord and even evil – fire and flood and war – we need hope. And healing and hope come to us, in the promise that the new city of God is not remote: it comes down to earth in the image of urban garden full of healing and life, in which we are reunited with God.
The vision is an invitation from God to make God’s dream real, here and now. We make it real by putting down all in our lives that is outside the vision: our divisions, our bitterness, our feuds, our broken relationships. We make it real by standing in the light and by remembering what is possible: what we are called to; what we are reborn for, on earth as in heaven. That is our part, how we participate in the remaking of the world. That is how we receive the healing of the leaves of the tree of life.
You know what they say is the secret of getting into heaven? You actually have to want to go there. You have to want it more than you want the things you have to release in order to make it real. This is where it happens. Among us, on earth.
As Christians, we know, in the marrow of our bones, that whatever strife or difficulty we may face, whatever discord or pain – we know deep down that hope is our heritage. That grace and peace and joy and love are in the body and the blood. And that together we can remake the world, the country, the church, and our lives, and live in the light of the city of the Lamb. When all other hope seems lost, that is the hope that we bear to the world.
And in that day, as Julian of Norwich encouraged us, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
With every blessing,
Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson
[i] Wikipedia Commons - The Generalife was the summer palace and country estate of the Nasrid rulers of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus (now Andalusia) in the 13th and 14th centuries.
[ii] Portions of The Revelation to John, 21-22, NRSVUE
[iii] Galatians 5:22